Jesus and Jihad: Reclaiming the Prophetic Heart of Christianity and Islam (Cascade Books, 2015)

[1] Robert F. Shedinger’s recent book, Jesus and Jihad: Reclaiming the Prophetic Heart of Christianity and Islam, argues for a constructive re-imagination (in fact, reclamation) of a pre-religious prophetic spirit, which was exemplified in the leadership of Jesus and Muhammad. Drawing from the insightful work of Fred Donner (Muhammad and the Believers, Belknap, 2010), Shedinger suggests that prior to the dawn of modern religious identity, as an identity framed by confessional pietism, there existed an unalloyed prophetic heart evident in both Jesus and Muhammad, and a prophetic heart that took aim at the political injustices of their respective time. The daily struggle of this prophetic activity is what Shedinger has in mind in his use of the term jihad, taken to mean the greater jihad (chapter three) as a spiritual, internal struggle to surrender one’s ego in favor of spiritual maturation in accordance with God’s will. To achieve this level of jihad, Christians and Muslims alike must liberate themselves from the “narrowly drawn religious-identity labels” (i.e., being exclusively Christian or Muslim) which prohibit human beings from being advocates for all of humanity, everywhere (160).

[2] In constructing his argument, Shedinger takes issue with two contentious challenges that inhibit the full prophetic and spiritual maturation of Christians and Muslims alike. The first challenge is identified as follows: Shedinger rightly identifies how words that are abused today, attain an explosive potential tomorrow. Consider the term jihad. Jihad is a popular dysphemism in the West; that is, the term alone has attained a popular offensiveness, conjuring immediate caricatures of Arab terrorists, holy war, and more, and likewise fuels a general creeping religio-cultural xenophobia, which serves to support current Islamophobic trends in the United States and abroad. All of this supports a serious concern so that Shedinger hopes the reader will reconfigure jihad as a euphemism that points to the true, prophetic heart of the Christian and Muslim expressions of observance. What is the prophetic heart of jihad that must be reclaimed? At its core, the prophetic heart of jihad is a spiritual struggle for justice and peace that awaits us at or near the origination of the Christian and Muslim narratives. The author aims to realign the term jihad to these origination points, which may elicit foundational commonality between Christians and Muslims in the world, rather than estrangement; and what’s more, the author hopes jihad will be interpreted as the access point for meaningful encounters between contemporary human beings who are the inheritors of the spiritual and prophetic legacy of the earliest believers, or followers, of both Jesus and Muhammad. Finally, Shedinger’s effort to reclaim the prophetic heart of Christianity and Islam is accomplished with equal parts reclamation of a unified theological narrative of jihad and the recovery of prophetic leadership; this leadership is latent and concealed by the doctrines of religious observance, which of themselves hinder more than help human beings toward their mature spiritual development. Taken together, this reclamation of jihad represents Shedinger’s first contentious challenge.

[3] The author’s second contentious challenge is somewhat more complex in that it draws the reader’s attention to what is commonly termed the secularization hypothesis, and, in addition, further on to what Shedinger terms “religionization.” We’ll investigate both of these terms below.

[4] The secularization hypothesis, as the author frames it, suggests a post-Enlightenment (although I recommend a review of Gotthold Lessing’s ugly, broad ditch as foundational for any rendition of this hypothesis) dichotomy that emerged in Western thought, and which drove a cleft or rift between the sacred and the secular in contemporary self-understanding. In reference to Taylor and Eliade, the author notes how this rift is treated as historical fact. On one side of the rift stands the sacred, which represents a pietistic, privatized, confessional, institutional and prophetically weak matter of the heart; on the other side stands the secular (including areas of political, socio-economic and public institutional life), which has no expressed daily use for spiritual well-being or the corrective prophetic voice belonging thereto. As a consequence of this rift, the proper role of a prophetic critique of injustice is irrelevant, even obsolete, to the web of economic and political institutions within society since these institutions operate with value systems that do not originate from, nor have any real use for, spiritual insight. If you consider the discourse about ubiquitous transnational corporations, you’ll begin to see Shedinger’s point. For instance, Google’s mission is to “do no evil.” But who determines the markers of evil, and speaks against evil when it is committed? Well, Google does, maybe. If you cannot locate the spiritually mature prophetic voice in all of this, then you see the author’s point about the excision of the sacred from the secular.

[5] The author’s second contentious challenge is what he calls “religionization.” Shedinger treats religionization as a cultural artifact. In brief, religionization, for Christians and Muslims alike, is represented on the first side of the rift of the sacred noted above as the depoliticized prophetic heart of both Jesus and Muhammad. In the provisionalization of the sacred, religionization is the (mostly U.S.) contemporary Christian insistence on the salvific work of Christ via variegated theologies of atonement, which over time reduces the individual prophetic heart to institutional membership and a narcissistic faith focused on salvation and personal piety at the expense of greater global engagement for peace and justice (19-25). This popular and triumphalist “narcissistic faith,” evident in both Christianity and Islam, is what Shedinger diagnoses as “religious-identity-obsession-syndrome,” whereby one’s over-identification with specific religious institutional life, misses the aspirations of Jesus, Muhammad, and the first believers’ emphasis upon spiritual maturation. Religionization “represents a failure of the prophetic spirit and a corruption of the character of those traditions’ central figures,” (118). Taken together, secularization and religionization accommodate and even condone systems of injustice in the world, and simultaneously conceal the gritty work of both Jesus and Muhammad for aspiring toward integrated justice in human life. Both secularization and religionization “are systematically running roughshod over any attempt to fully embrace the connection between the spiritual and political,” (134). And this is the final point, not unlike a fiber optic cable at the bottom of the ocean, once the connection between spirituality and the political is cut; life becomes provisionalized and unable to be fully integrated.

[6] Shedinger’s insights on the spiritual virtue of jihad, secularization, religionization, the loss of spiritual well-being, and the structural silencing of the prophetic voice, are all important in response to meeting an expressed public hunger today in at least the following areas: a) viable Christian-Muslim encounter, from local to international contexts; b) an assessment of the missional identity of the Church as we clear the fence on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council; c) the current discussions around religious multiple-belonging where religious communities enter into serious consideration of the human faith-instinct and the markers of spiritual identity practices, and more.

[7] And yet, there are also key concerns at points in this author’s analysis that deserve mentioning here. First, a) the secularization hypothesis, which suggests a growing loss of religious relevance has been in large part disproven, surprising even those who vied for its veracity in the first place. Trusted international agencies note the rise of religious and spiritual interest, practice, and organization around the world, some of which is clearly also leading to sectarian violence in our century of a kind not witnessed since the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. This suggests that the poles of sacred and secular are more fluid and messy than prescribed; b) religionization as an obsession-syndrome seems unfair or at least overstated in not accounting for the millions upon millions of Christians in the world who adhere to a theology of atonement that is demonstratively inclusive of a rich social justice commitment [including the world’s Catholics and Methodists, for instance]; and c) in a similar light, it would be helpful to take a closer look at the ecumenical history of the Church, and the national and international perspicuous examples of decades-long struggles for justice, from local municipalities to geopolitical actors. The normative history of the Christian prophetic experience, in the U.S. alone, convinces me that the author needs to scale beyond a typological assessment of Christianity prior to claiming that these are “cowed into prophetic submission.” And finally, d) the alignment of the historical Jesus and the spiritual heart of jihad is creative and fruitful in a comparative religious analysis, especially important to Christian theological comparative ethics today.

[8] In order to undertake a meaningful ethical analysis of this order, we must ask after how our author accesses the life of Jesus. In even a cursory analysis, I remain mindful of Albert Schweitzer’s caveat against casting the interpreter’s own shadow too long upon the visage of the Jesus in history. Shedinger suggests that Christianity has for too long seen the Roman Empire as a “neutral backdrop” related to Jesus’ life. In fact, we are told, Jesus’ socio-political context was fraught with irregularities of justice and disparities in human well-being. Shedinger briefly assesses the semiotics of the Messiah and the socio-historical eschatology of God’s kingdom here-and-now, ranging from Gutierrez to Cone, in order to describe Jesus as a leader who daily refuses the implements of power by battling the injustice of empire buzzing around him. This is not the “sugary-sweet Jesus of Sunday School who loves and cares for everyone; [rather] this is a prophetic Jesus calling the powerful to account while envisioning a revolutionary reversal of the socioeconomic system of Roman Palestine”(96). There are limitations to every interpretation of Jesus in history. Shedinger has a point, though, in consideration of but one aspect of our own historical context. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees will track the up-tick of whole displaced communities; shy of a miracle, displacement from Syria, Eritrea, and additional countries will rise precipitously, and this is closely aligned to a rise in sectarian violence across the planet. As I understand this author, jihad for Christians (and Muslims) must draw on their progenitor in order to shape a mutually applicable resilient resistance in the face of injustice, necessary to our age. Such resilience will require humans on our planet to experience one another’s full humanity by transcending the borders and attendant stigmatizations of national, religious, and otherwise tribal identities.

[9] Shedinger’s interpretation of ‘the-Jesus-he-is-referring-to’ reveals his belief that the prophetic heart of Christianity must cross the fabricated divide between the sacred and the secular, to reclaim what the author titles “responsible jihad.” The markers of responsible jihad include the following: a) a commitment to struggle against the conceit of an enclosed ego at the personal level; b) personal dedication to “transcend the narrowly conceived religious-identity labels” that have limited deeper spiritual identity; c) a commitment to speaking “uncomfortable truths to priests and kings”(16); and d) rootedness in a “deep and mature spirituality.” In practical terms, a deep and mature spirituality requires human beings to transcend traditional religious monikers, as noted above. Shedinger notes, “I have transcended human-created institutional structures . . . and derive my identity from something deeper”(103-126). This is the author’s challenge for our shared humanity, which is necessary to break through the loggerheads of forms of religious over-identification that are harming fellow human beings, the world, and our mutual hope for a future. Emulating the resilient resistance of Jesus and Muhammad is the secret to developing a mature spirituality “without which there can be no responsible jihad.”(126).

Michael Reid Trice

Michael Reid Trice, Ph.D, is Assistant Dean of Ecumenical and Religious Dialogue and Assistant Professor of Ethics and Constructive Theology at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry.